Mesoamerican Day Signs

The post below is mainly intended for students reading my Garza Twins series, but the information may be useful for others as well.

Most societies in pre-Columbian Mexico (Aztec, Maya, Mixtec, etc.) used a complex system to keep track of dates. Basically there were two overlapping calendars in this system: a 365-day solar year and a 260-day sacred or ceremonial year.

The solar year (called xiuhpohualli by the Aztecs and haab’ by the Maya) was made up of 18 months that lasted 20 days each, as well as a period of five “nameless” days (nemontemi or wayeb’) at the end of the year.

The 20 days of each month had a basic name or sign. These twenty signs repeated eighteen times in a year.

 

Nahuatl name English translation Maya name English translation
Cipactli Crocodile, monster Imix Waterlily
Ehēcatl Wind Ik Wind
Calli House Akbal Darkness, night
Cuetzpalin Lizard K’an Maize
Cōātl Snake Chikchan Celestial snake
Miquiztli Death Kimi Death
Mazātl Deer Manik Deer
Tōchtli Rabbit Lamat Venus
Ātl Water Muluk Jade, water
Itzcuintli Dog Ok Dog
Ozomahtli Monkey Chuwen Monkey
Malīnalli Grass Eb Rain
Ācatl Reed B’en Green maize
Ōcēlōtl Jaguar Ix Jaguar
Cuāuhtli Eagle Men Eagle
Cōzcacuāuhtli Vulture Kib Wax
Olīn Movement Kab’an Earth
Tecpatl Flint, flint knife Etz’nab Flint
Quiyahuitl Rain Kawak Storm
Xōchitl Flower Ahaw Ruler

 

Now the other, sacred calendar (tonalpohualli in Nahuatl and tzolk’in in Maya) didn’t have months: it consisted of twenty “weeks” of thirteen days each (which adds up to 260). We call these long “weeks” by their Spanish title: trecenas. To give a specific day its complete name, then, the people of pre-Columbian Mexico would use the number of the day in the trecena plus the name of the day in the month. So, for example, a trecena that starts on Ātl (water) would go like this:

  • 1 Water
  • 2 Dog
  • 3 Monkey
  • 4 Grass
  • 5 Reed
  • 6 Jaguar
  • 7 Eagle
  • 8 Vulture
  • 9 Movement
  • 10 Flint
  • 11 Rain
  • 12 Flower
  • 13 Crocodile

Notice how the names of the days start over once we get past “flower”?  The next “week” would begin with 1 Wind, 2 House, etc.

So why is this important to Johnny and Carol Garza in the Garza Twins series? Well, the ancient Mesoamericans believed that who you were as a person was highly influenced by the day on which you were born or baptized (yes, there was infant baptism in Mexico before Catholics arrived). The word tonalli was used by the Aztecs to name both the day sign and the special third soul that they believed human beings were born with, and the two things were tightly connected. A person born on a flint day, for example, might show characteristics of flint—hardness, sharpness, etc.

You probably noticed that many of the days are associated with an animal. People born on those days had a tonal (as we call it nowadays) that was very much like the creature itself, a sort of animal soul, if you will. And most Mesoamericans believed that certain people with these souls could actually shift into the animal’s shape. The Maya called such a person a way (pronounced like “why”); the Aztec word was nahualli. We now say nagual or nahual (nah-WAL).

Johnny and Carol were born on August 10, 2002, which was a “One Jaguar” day. It’s no surprise, then, that Johnny’s animal soul is a jaguar. Note, however, that the twins were baptized on August 26, which falls under the sign “Four Dog.” It’s pretty clear that Carol’s abilities are shaped by that day more than her birth date, which one of the reasons for her wolf tonal. By the way, the twins’s mother, Verónica Quintero de Garza, was born on February 8, 1976—Six Jaguar.

Okay, so I bet you would like to learn what your day sign is, huh? Maybe you have an animal soul, too. If not, there is still something magical about every tonalli.

If you head over to the Aztec Calendar website, you can plug in your birthday and find out a bunch of information about what the Aztecs would have predicted about you, including your tonal.

The website My Mayan Sign can do the same thing, but using Maya day signs, which as you see above vary a little bit from the Aztec system.

Once you’ve found your tonal, you might even consider writing a story about being a shape-shifter or having magic powers that connect to that sign. Keep in mind the wide variety that could come from even a single tonalli: someone with a “dog” birthday might be a wolf or coyote; “jaguar” might manifest itself as a puma or ocelot.

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